At a certain point, the Cupeño stopped looking back.

This land is mine: The Cupeño removal of 1903, part four of four

Manuella Sibimoat
  • Manuella Sibimoat

The wagons came at sunrise. Over 40 teams passed through the barb-wired gate and lurched up the dirt road to Kupa like a giant snake. They came to drive the Cupeño from their land. Stacked wooden boxes suggested some were ready for the move. Others fought the urge to flee.

All through the night, women in long dresses chanted dirges around campfires. The commotion — and knowing they must leave their ancestral home forever — made sleep impossible.

By the time the teamsters arrived, each deputized and “armed with a rifle on the seat and a brace of revolvers” (Union), several Cupeño families already left for Pala in carts and old spring wagons. Francisco “Pancho” Chutnicut, wearing a dusty silk top-hat, watched in silence as the first four-horse team headed out with his family’s possessions.

Walkers left early for a head start on the main caravan. According to the San Diego Union, eight others went even earlier, on May 9, in an unsuccessful attempt to secure the best pieces of property at the reservation.

Many Cupeño went to pray one last time in the St. Francis chapel, on a knoll northwest of the village. As lay priest Ambrosio Ortega met them at the door, sounds from the village a quarter mile away grew louder: barking dogs, neighing horses, clanking of stoves and cooking pots on wagonbeds. The loading had begun.

“We were scared,” recalled Roscinda Nolasquez, then age 11. “We didn’t know what was going on. We saw old people running back and forth. We cried, too, because we were afraid.”

After chapel, people went down the hill to the humble cemetery of wooden crosses and the crematory mound across the road.

The Cupeño weren’t just leaving a village, they were leaving their universe — and the “second world” of their ancestors, all the way back to the “first people,” with whom they shared palpable bonds.

Every rock, every tree reverberated with links to the past. Things were where they had always been: the sights, the smells, the seasonal changes, even lovers’ hiding places. And everything had a name.

The Cupeño must abandon the black oaks up at Eagle’s Nest, where they harvested acorns in the fall, always leaving enough so their ancestors, and even the animals, could have their time of gathering.

They must leave the medicine rock, where legend said a woman turned to stone, lightning split it in two, and it became a powerful source of healing.

They must leave permanent homes, many of two-foot-thick adobe, with thatched roofs and open-beam ceilings. And they must leave nature’s pharmacy of healing herbs: rose hips for a cold; tea from elderberry blossoms for a fever.

And they must leave the hot springs, where one acre-foot a day rose in bubbles and wreaths of steam wafted over 140-degree water. This was where the Cupeño slept in winter to keep warm. To them the sulphur smelled of health.

While the natives remained in the burial areas, as if refusing to leave, noises back at the village increased, as if the drivers were eager to hit the road.

“Most of the Indians had their own horses,” teamster Judd Tripp recalled. “Some had rigs…but most of the stuff they had to move, we moved.” Tripp hauled old Cayatan’s “great big round rocks” — stone mortars for grinding — on his two-horse rig. “But most of the Indians, they didn’t have enough to make a load.”

Many Cupeños refused aid. At one point Captain Sibimoat shouted: “We are not lame or blind, we can work. We don’t want help!”

Grant Wallace, covering the event for the San Francisco Bulletin, watched Jacinta Ortega heave books onto a bonfire: “spellers, arithmetics, poems, along with bows and arrows.” Asked why, she said, “now she hated white people, their religion, their books.”

More blaring noises, sun higher in the sky, heat rising: hammers tearing nails from lumber, lumber clacking on the wagons. The careful packing now mere piling on.

Inspector James Jenkins, in charge of the move, began the day shouting orders and cracking a rope like a whip. He rode out early with Josephine Babbitt, the popular schoolteacher, and Laura Cornelius. “I left the caravan in charge of the [drivers],” he told the Riverside Daily Press. The Cupeño, he said, “are peaceable as lambs. While regretting to leave their old home, they were perfectly willing to go.”

As teamsters chucked her household goods onto a wagon, Bearfoot Manuella Sibimoat became incensed. The 91-year-old woman shouted at Grant Wallace: “Here I will stay, even if I die, even if coyotes eat me.”

With that she turned and began a slow trudge up the hill, past the hot springs and granite boulders, toward the village’s guardian peaks — Eagle’s Nest, Squaw Mountain, and Rabbit House — high in the distance.

Just after 10:00 a.m., John Brown, the Cupeño attorney, waited in the lead wagon for Ambrosio Ortega to emerge from the chapel. When Ortega climbed on board, he took a last look, flicked the reins, and cried “Vamoose Pala.” About 25 wagons rolled out of Kupa.

Earlier that morning, Captain Sibimoat had breakfast with his wife, Ramona, and daughter Nieves. “We will go to Pala,” he told a reporter, “but I cannot say that we will stay.”

Two hours later, he watched teamsters rip down his wooden home and load it on a wagon. L.A. Herald: “He saw the demolition while standing under a nearby live oak and wiped an occasional tear with an old bandana handkerchief.”

The last to leave, Sibimoat uttered, “let them eat sand.”

The caravan headed north on the old Butterfield Stage route — today’s Highway 79, though much windier — skirting the east side of Palomar Mountain. The three-day, 50-plus-mile trip was mostly downhill, with a drop in altitude of 2600 feet. Horses and mules didn’t mind the uphill stretches — called “pulls’ by the drivers — even with heavy loads. But they didn’t like going downhill, and they would balk at “divides” — sudden low rises or ridges — in the road.

Part one | Part two | Part three

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powerful story, powerful story telling -- thank you

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